Restraining intellectual pursuit

Three years after the state government swooped down on human rights activist Gautam Navlakha and deported him along with Sahba Hussain, accompanying him, from Srinagar airport, noted academic and world renowned author Mridu Rai was barred from delivering an academic lecture in Srinagar on Wednesday by imposing Section 144. Mridu Rai has been targeted probably because what she may have said would not have been very flattering for the government in the state or at the centre. However, while bringing academic activity within the ambit of the government’s policy of unjustified curbs and restrictions, the legal validity and ethical logic of the act comes under a big question mark. This is yet another occasion when the state government has revealed excessive intolerance to dissent and used undemocratic ways to silence free voices, posing serious threat to the right to free speech and expression. In a democracy, everybody should have a right to voice his or her opinion, howsoever in discordance it is with popular or official opinion, provided there is no bid to hurt religious sentiments, provoke violence or to hurt the integrity of the country. These riders are already provided for in the law but unfortunately also used and abused excessively to curb freedom of expression, more so in this state. Such overt and covert bid to scuttle dissent, unfortunately, has been part and parcel of J&K’s polity for long, though the process has now exacerbated with a more systemic regime of denying this right to free speech.

This is for the first time that unjustified restrictions have been imposed, mainly in Kashmir Valley, to prevent voices of dissent, though in recent years, which have witnessed peaceful articulation of Kashmir’s resistance struggle, any space of democratic dissent has been totally squeezed through measures that not only amount to violation of civil liberties but are also brutal. Unjustified detentions and arrests, not only of young teenagers and youth but also of professionals, lawyers, intellectuals and civil society activists, are common. Excessive curbs have been imposed on the media with two glaring occasions, one during the 2010 summer agitation and second after Afzal Guru hanging, when newspapers were disallowed from going ahead with their publications for prolonged periods. Apart from this the media persons have had to face threats, intimidation and newspapers have been denied government advertisement support to gag their voices. The Kashmir based television channels have been barred from telecasting news bulletin on the pretext that none of these channels have conformed to the legally binding license requirements even though channels flouting similar rules in Jammu region have been allowed to operate freely. The discriminatory tactics were also seen two years ago when VHP’s firebrand leader, known for his hate speeches, was not only allowed but escorted in and out of the sensitive border town of Rajouri to address a public rally where he made an allegedly inflammatory speech. Even in Jammu, there have been occasions of scuttling dissent by disallowing public meetings and even indoor conferences. Several means of harassment are employed, like sending in sponsored teams of hooligans, often fringe groups of the saffron brigade. Several meetings and programmes organised by progressives to talk about the plight of people in Jammu and Kashmir, particularly those bearing the brunt of state repression in the Valley, have been disrupted through such fringe groups and the State has failed to offer protection to the participants in these meetings. The obsession of the establishment in totally crushing any kind of voice against the State is further reflected by the manner in which even non political protests by unemployed youth or government employees are now disallowed, curbed and brutally lathi-charged. A glimpse of this was yet again seen on the same day as Mridu Rai was disallowed from delivering her lecture, when aspirants for jobs in the Fire and Emergency department were dealt with violent ways for protesting against the mismanagement both in Jammu and Srinagar. 

Especially in the Valley, any kind of peaceful protests are not allowed, rather discouraged, pushing people to take recourse to slightly violent ways of protest. Interestingly, Rai’s lecture, as she said, “was referring to the fact how the greater violence is to ensure that voices are not heard, which in fact happened today”. The restrictions imposed on Wednesday may not amount to violence in the strict sense of the word but officially legitimised, they do imply the same thing. What makes these actions both ridiculous and ludicrous is that neither did the lecture fall within the ambit of protest, public rally or any kind of a campaign. It was a simple academic exercise which did not warrant such action from a completely paranoid government, insecure of voices other than those that seek to be in agreement with the powers that be. The deputy commissioner Srinagar is reported to have said that NGOs should seek prior permission for holding such functions. This may be a misrepresentation of facts as closed door intellectual pursuits do not fall within the same paradigm and cannot be clamped down on with Section 144 or other retrogressive laws. By preventing the renowned academic from delivering her lecture, the government has not only acted illegally, it has also set a bad precedent which both hampers academic pursuit and has the potential of further pushing the people to the brink, leaving only retaliatory violence as a means of giving vent to their anger.